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STATE OF LOUISIANA

COURT OF APPEAL, THIRD CIRCUIT

17-458

STATE OF LOUISIANA

VERSUS

BRIAN MICHAEL HUGHES

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APPEAL FROM THE


THIRTY-FIFTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT
PARISH OF GRANT, NO. 16-490
HONORABLE WARREN DANIEL WILLETT, DISTRICT JUDGE

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SYLVIA R. COOKS
JUDGE
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Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Sylvia R. Cooks and
Shannon J. Gremillion, Judges.

REVERSED; CONVICTION AND SENTENCE VACATED.

James P. Lemoine
District Attorney, Thirty-Fifth Judicial District
Jimmy D. White
Assistant District Attorney, Thirty-Fifth Judicial District
P. O. Box 309
Colfax, LA 71417
(318) 627-2971
COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE:
State of Louisiana

Paula C. Marx
Louisiana Appellate Project
P. O. Box 80006
Lafayette, LA 70598
(337) 991-9757
COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT:
Brian Michael Hughes
COOKS, Judge.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 20, 2016, Sergeant Robert Murphy of the Louisiana State Police

was traveling southbound on Highway 167 when he noticed Defendant, Brian

Michael Hughes, leaning against a vehicle in the teachers parking lot of Grant

Junior High School, near Dry Prong, Louisiana. Sergeant Murphy turned around

and approached Defendant. It appeared to Sergeant Murphy that Defendant was

under the influence of something, and a field investigation was conducted. Mr.

Smith, the principal of the school, arrived on the scene and indicated he wanted

Defendant, who did not have permission to be at the school, charged with criminal

trespassing. Defendant was arrested, and during a search incident to the arrest,

Grant Parish Sheriffs Officer Danny Hebert, located a clear, plastic baggy

containing a hard, clear substance which appeared to be crystal methamphetamine

in Defendants pocket.

The seized substance was weighed at the Grant Parish Sheriffs Office on

scales at the station. The clear, plastic baggy, later identified in evidence as S-1,

was determined to weigh 2.3 grams. In a later weighing of S-1 at the North

Louisiana Crime Lab (hereafter Crime Lab), it was determined to weigh 1.73

grams. The substance was also tested by the Crime Lab and determined to be

methamphetamine.

Defendant was subsequently charged by bill of information with possession

of methamphetamines, a violation of La.R.S. 40:967(C). He was found guilty as

charged and was sentenced to five years at hard labor. Defendant is before this

court seeking review of his conviction. For the following reasons, we find merit in

Defendants contention that the weight discrepancy of the substance measured by

the Grant Parish Sheriffs Department (2.3 grams) and the weight recorded by the

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analyst at the Crime Lab (1.73 grams) provided reasonable doubt as to whether the

lab received and analyzed the same evidence taken from Defendants pocket.

Thus, we reverse Defendants conviction.

ANALYSIS

In accordance with La.Code Crim.P. art. 920, all appeals are reviewed for

errors patent on the face of the record. After reviewing the record, we find there

are no errors patent.

Defendant was convicted of possession of methamphetamine, which

required the State to prove that he was in possession of the methamphetamine and

he knowingly possessed it. In his lone assignment of error, Defendant contends the

State presented insufficient evidence to prove him guilty of the charged offense, in

that the weight discrepancy of the substance measured by the Grant Parish

Sheriffs Department (2.3 grams) and the weight recorded by the analyst at the

crime lab (1.73 grams) amounted to reasonable doubt that the lab received and

analyzed the same evidence taken from Defendants pocket and weighed at the

Sheriffs office.

The analysis for claims concerning sufficiency of the evidence is well

settled:

When the issue of sufficiency of evidence is raised on appeal, the


critical inquiry of the reviewing court is whether, after viewing the
evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational
trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime
proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307,
99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, rehearing denied, 444 U.S. 890, 100
S.Ct. 195, 62 L.Ed.2d 126 (1979); State ex rel. Graffagnino v. King,
436 So.2d 559 (La.1983); State v. Duncan, 420 So.2d 1105 (La.1982);
State v. Moody, 393 So.2d 1212 (La.1981). It is the role of the fact
finder to weigh the respective credibility of the witnesses, and
therefore, the appellate court should not second guess the credibility
determinations of the triers of fact beyond the sufficiency evaluations
under the Jackson standard of review. See State ex rel. Graffagnino,
436 So.2d 559 (citing State v. Richardson, 425 So.2d 1228
(La.1983)). In order for this Court to affirm a conviction, however,
the record must reflect that the state has satisfied its burden of

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proving the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
(Emphasis added.)

State v. Kennerson, 96-1518, p. 5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 5/7/97), 695 So.2d 1367, 1371.

Defendant elicited testimony at trial as to the discrepancy in the weights

taken by the Sheriffs Office and at the Crime Lab. Sergeant Hebert of the Grant

Parish Sheriffs Office testified that he seized a hard, clear substance in a small,

clear, plastic bag from Defendants front pocket on April 20, 2016, introduced as

States Exhibit #1 at trial. Sergeant Hebert placed the seized bag inside an

evidence bag to be sent to the Crime Lab in Alexandria, where it was determined

to be crystal methamphetamine. Sergeant Hebert testified that the substance in the

small bag weighed 2.3 grams on the office scale provided by the Crime Lab.

Alana Brauer, a forensic chemist with the Crime Lab, testified that the

substance, determined to be methamphetamine, weighed 1.73 grams with the

inner bag included. This weight discrepancy between the seizing agency total

and that of the Crime Lab amounts to slightly more than a twenty-five percent

(25%) difference. The State, in an attempt to explain the weight discrepancy,

called Ms. Brauer to the stand, who testified concerning the different weights, and

how such a result could occur, explaining as follows:

Q Okay, uh, do you know whether or not they field tested the
substance out on the field and - - and used part of it for that color test
that you describe[d] earlier?

A I do not know that.

Q If that happened, that could be a re- - cause for the reduction in


the weight, is that correct?

A That much of a change, no. That would be a bit excessive for a


field test but its probably the balance itself.

Q What do you mean by that?

A Um, I dont know what kind of balances they have at the


station, so our balances per our accreditation standards, they have to
be calibrated yearly. Um, and we do monthly checks on them to

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ensure that they still weigh, if we put a two hundred (200) gram
known weight that it weighs two hundred (200) grams.

Q Okay.

A So, it could be whether or not their balances are maintained as


to the - - to the extent that ours are.

We find this testimony, even when viewing it in a light most favorable to the

prosecution, falls short in explaining such a significant weight difference. We find

it unreasonable to accept as evidence the mere hyperbolized offering of Ms. Brauer

that perhaps the weight discrepancy in excess of twenty-five percent can be

explained by a failure to maintain balance and calibration in the scales. This

explanation is particularly lacking when considered against the backdrop that the

scales in question were provided to the Grant Parish Sheriffs Department by the

Crime Lab. Further, the burden to establish the chain of evidence rests with the

State. The State failed to present any credible evidence to substantiate Ms.

Brauers attempt, after being pressed for an explanation, to provide a good guess.

The State did not offer testimony from or documents prepared by the Sheriffs

Office custodian of evidence attesting to the fact that the scale was improperly

balanced during the relevant time period, or that there were other similar

discrepancies of evidence weighed during the period, all suggestive that the scale

was not properly balanced. Ms. Brauer was not the custodian of the weight scale

once it was delivered to the Sheriffs Office.

We find very instructive the concurring opinion of Justices Tate and Dennis

in State v. Francis, 345 So.2d 1120 (La. 1977). In that case, the substance in

question, purchased from the defendant, was initially listed to be 6.53 grams, but

was later determined to be 10.79 grams when weighed by a trained chemist.

Noting this discrepancy in weight, the concurring justices felt a serious issue was

presented as to whether the chain of custody [was] adequately proved. Id. at

1127. In addressing the pertinent law surrounding a situation such as was


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presented here where there was a marked discrepancy in weight between the

substance originally seized from a defendant and later tested in the lab, the justices

stated:

[A] different issue is presented where the evidence suggests


substantial doubt as to the identity or connexity between the
incriminating object purchased and the object offered for introduction
into evidence.

As stated by McCormick on Evidence, Section 212 at pp. 527--


28 (2d ed. 1972): . . . if the offered evidence is of such a nature as
not to be readily identifiable, or to be susceptible to alteration by
tampering or contamination, sound exercise of the trial courts
discretion may require a substantially more elaborate foundation. A
foundation of the latter sort will commonly entail testimonially tracing
the chain of custody of the item with sufficient completeness to
render it improbable that the original item has either been exchanged
with another or been contaminated or tampered with.

In the present case, substantial doubt that the substance


introduced in evidence (analyzed as containing heroin) is the identical
substance purchased from the accused may well arise: The evidence
shows that the substance analyzed at the laboratory had a gross weight
of 10.79 grams, while the allegedly illegal substance purchased had a
gross weight of only 6.53 grams.

Upon the trial courts noting this gross discrepancy in weight,


or upon proper objection by the accused, the evidence should have
been excluded as not having been shown more probably than not to be
relevant; or else, before its admission, the state should have been at
least required by way of further foundation to reasonably explain the
discrepancy so as preponderantly to show the requisite connexity.

In Francis, the justices concurred because trial counsel did not object to or explore

the issue of whether the weight discrepancy cast doubt upon the identity of the

substance introduced in evidence as that purchased from the accused. Thus, they

felt the State was denied the opportunity to [produce] a satisfactory explanation

for the discrepancy. Id. at 1128. In this case, Defendant explored this issue at

trial, and as set forth above, we find the testimony of Alana Brauer does not offer a

reasonable, plausible explanation for the weight discrepancy. Her only explanation

was that she [did not] know what kind of balances they have at the station . . . [s]o

it could be whether or not their balances are maintained as to the - - to the extent

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that ours are. The record establishes the scales at the Grant Parish Sheriffs

Office were provided by the Crime Lab.

We find the State failed to reasonably explain the weight discrepancy

between the substance seized and weighed at the Sheriffs Office and the substance

tested at the Crime Lab and introduced into evidence. Evidence is not relevant

unless identified or authenticated as connected with the case. State v. Foret, 196

La. 675, 200 So. 1 (1941). If prejudice results from the trial courts erroneous

admission of irrelevant evidence, the defendant upon appeal is entitled to a reversal

of his conviction. Id. As the concurring justices noted in Francis, 345 So.2d at

1128, [u]pon the trial courts noting this gross discrepancy in weight, . . . the

evidence should have been excluded as not having been shown more probably than

not to be relevant.

As Defendant notes, the concurrence in Francis recognized that weight

discrepancy can present a relevancy issue separate from chain of custody when the

evidence suggests substantial doubt as to the identity or connexity between the

item seized and what is introduced into evidence.

In this case, the State presented testimony as to the handling of the evidence.

Despite this, the significant weight discrepancy creates reasonable doubt that the

Crime Lab received and analyzed the same evidence Sergeant Hebert testified he

seized from Defendants pocket and weighed at the Sheriffs office. Ms. Brauer

testified that the substance she examined had a weight of only 1.73 grams, not the

2.3 grams Sergeant Hebert testified he seized from Defendant.

For the reasons expressed above, we find the lack of a reasonable or legally

plausible explanation regarding the weight discrepancy between the substance

seized from Defendant and what was offered into evidence establishes reasonable

doubt that the original item was either exchanged with another or was tampered

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with in some untoward way. Thus, we find Defendants guilty verdict must be set

aside because the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

DECREE

For the foregoing reasons, Defendants conviction and sentence on

possession of methamphetamines is reversed and vacated.

REVERSED; CONVICTION AND SENTENCE VACATED.